I just finished Anna Burns’s Milkman. It was negatively reviewed in the New York Times–the author claimed, among other things, that if Edna O’Brien had written this story, it would have been a 20 page short story. So ridiculous and so telling: Edna O’Brien is read entirely in relation to James Joyce, and all subsequent women writers from Ireland and Northern Ireland are read in relation to her.
This comparison between Burns and O’Brien is frustrating in part because the novel, itself, refers many nineteenth-century novels that the protagonist/narrator reads: Ivanhoe, Castle Rackrent, Jane Eyre, Martin Chuzzlewit (!?!), an unnamed novel by Thomas Hardy. As the protagonist puts it:
“Every weekday, rain or shine, gunplay or bombs, stand-off or riots, I preferred to walk home reading my latest book. This would be a nineteenth-century book because I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century” (5).
The review takes a passage like this to mean that the protagonist wants to escape “the horrors around her” and also sex. The nineteenth century, in this review, is a safe, sexless world. But as a twenty-first century reader with my own predilection for nineteenth-century novels, I want to think about the presence of all of these novels in this novels differently. The protagonist seems to express a desire for the “ordinary” or a desire for realism: a fantasy of a self-contained and stable world produced through the nineteenth-century novel. The nineteenth century is not safe and certainly not sexless, but it can produce and export a vision of ordinary life that seems fundamentally at odds with the everyday life that the protagonist inhabits. Wanting to be able to tell her story in the realist register, the protagonist is constantly thwarted.
As the book unfolds, however, it seems that the differences between the nineteenth century and the twentieth century become less stark as realism seeps into her story. When Somebody McSomebody’s youngest brother falls from the window in a senseless accident, the community invents all kinds of story: that he had jumped purposefully or jumped because he thought himself to be a super hero. As one character explains:
“that was the thing people invented here because you couldn’t just die here, couldn’t have an ordinary death here, not anymore, not of natural causes, not by accident such as falling out a window, especially now after all the other violent deaths taking place in this district now” (145-6).
In other words, community stories reject realism but we get it all the same: Somebody McSomebody’s brother’s death is an accident even if it is never narrated that way. The protagonist seeks realism through nineteenth-century novels to escape her present but realizes that the rigid division between past and present, suggested above by the “not anymore,” isn’t so rigid. In the midst of extraordinary political violence, ordinary life persists in both good and bad ways (ordinary life is not safe: it too has violence). Or, to put it slightly different, instead of thinking of the protagonist’s reading-while-walking as different from our own act of reading (she reads to escape the very politics that perhaps draws us to Milkman, she reads classic novels while we seek experimental novels–or, as the New York Times might put it, she reads plot-driven novels while we are stuck reading a ‘difficult’ novel), the novel encourages us to read in relation, to read with and through–not simply against–the protagonist; to see the nineteenth century at work in the twentieth century.